El Cau is the local watering hole in the Priotari town of Poboleda, packed for lunchtime every day of the week. Part of their success has to do with location – it’s the first restaurant you pass on the drive into town from the direction of Cornudella. Parked in front are cars, vans and tractors; parked inside are hungry vineyard and winery workers on their lunch break. From noon to four the front terrace is bathed in sunshine, making it ideal to sit outside even on chiller winter days. Inside it’s a rustic tavern with wooden tables covered in rough white linen. When you sit a basket of bread and porron of red wine come almost immediately to the table, along with a ramekin of tiny arbequina olives. Most folks are there for the 12€ lunch special, which includes a salad, a second and a dessert with coffee for a set price. The menu is a collection of Catalan countryside classics such as caracoles (snails), bacalao (salt cod), rabbit and lamb. And yeah, the porron is kind of a must here. It’s all but included in the price.
During my last visit to Priorat we chose El Cau over La Venta; the choice has always seemed to be between these two. As the lady read off the entrees of the day I heard the magic words roll off her tongue – pies de cerdo – and decided to order them immediately. On a cold winter day up in the mountains nothing hits the spot like a plate of homemade pork knuckles prepared grandma-style.
At El Cau the pig’s feet come two-to-an-order, braised with white beans in a velvety smooth and slightly piquant red sauce. As the dish arrived by the table my companions looked up from their salt-cold carpaccios and leafy green salads into the pile of knuckles on my plate. “You’re gonna eat all that?”
Schweinshaxe is in fact one of my favorite pig parts and the most intimate pork experience between nose and tail. By volume it’s mostly bone, but that bone is wrapped in some of the most succulent piggy flesh, jiggly collagen, tight tendon and loose, buttery fat found on the animal. The fibers of fork-tender flesh are bound together with silky collagen that helps them slip readily off the bone in perfect bite-sized clumps. Each bite is sinfully moist, fatty and savory. It satisfies enough to render appetizers and dessert unnecessary.
El Cau’s version is delicious comfort food. The sauce provides a burst of salty, herby flavor and a hint of spice; there’s plenty left on the plate to sop up with bread. The beans add a soft, mushy texture and extra heartiness to the dish. The steaming, tender pork meat inside is cooked perfectly. Coated in silken fat and collagen, it falls off the bone and has plenty of flavor on its own to stand up to the sauce. My only qualm with these feet is that the skin gets a tad soggy from braising in a sauce and some bites become even slightly chewy as a result. I prefer the knuckles roasted with the skin gratinated and crunchy, while the meat inside remains moist and soft. Even so, El Cau’s pies de cerdo are wonderfully flavorful and deeply satisfying on a winter afternoon.